Throw Bubbie From The Train

As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time thinking about the history of immigration, I’m always interested in the current rhetoric around immigrants, and how it’s similar to or differs from what people used to say during the last big wave of immigration about a century ago. What irritates me the most is when the descendants of the Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish etc etc etc immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th centuries hold up their bubbes and zaydies and nonnas and yayas as examples of good immigrants, whereas the abuelas and popos of today are the worst kind of bad immigrant.

You see this in the discussions about assimilation. I don’t want to argue for or against the virtues of assimilating into the mainstream culture here. And if you read my book, you’ll see that I think that “assimilation” isn’t always the best word for the process by which immigrants get absorbed into US culture; rather, the children of immigrants carve out new ways of being American, and the culture itself changes around new ethnic practices (think about how the rhythms of dancehall and reggaetón have been folded into hip-hop, for example). For argument’s sake, let’s just accept that assimilation is unidirectional, and a good thing.

In the minds of many conservatives, assimilation isn’t happening fast enough, or political correctness is getting in the way. Some arguments you’ll see are that bilingual education is limiting English language learning, or that immigrant enclaves allow people to live in their native languages. Senate Republicans think this is a serious enough issue that they want to introduce legislation to make immigrants learn English. And while the recent brouhaha over Jason Richwine’s eugenicist arguments about the cognitive deficits of Latinos shone a light on the nastier side of anti-immigration rhetoric, the fact that he was hired by the Heritage Foundation to co-author a major study on immigration shows that he’s not that much of an outlier on the right when it comes to immigration policy.

This is when I want to take James Inhofe and Laura Ingraham, and Marco Rubio (just to pick some names out of a hat) and shake them really hard. Or I could give them a copy of Antonio Mangano’s 1917 book Sons of Italy, an amazing work of insider sociology. Mangano noted how “helpless” Italian immigrant parents were in dealing with the larger world. Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy, in Young Working Girls (1913) called immigrant mothers “totally inept” in dealing with their new environment. Anglo reformers complained about the dominance of Yiddish and Italian signs, newspapers, and theatres on the Lower East Side; they thought that immigrant neighbourhoods were so filthy and dangerous that children would be better off pretty much anywhere else, which led to the notorious “Orphan Trains,” in which kids were shipped away from their immigrant families to farms in the West.

While I don’t think that even the loathsome Ann Coulter in her most provocative would suggest uprooting the children of Mexican immigrants and housing them with, say, with the next iteration of Gingriches, most of what anti-immigrant nativists were saying in 1913 is pretty close to what analogous anti-immigrant nativists are saying today. What kills me, though, is that today’s America First-ers are the descendants of those very immigrants who were considered unassimilable. And they’re parroting the same crap that would have forced their zaydies and bubbes and nonnas into a hostile world that had no use for them.



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2 responses to “Throw Bubbie From The Train

  1. At one of his public appearances Jason Richwine listed American ethnic groups by order of IQ, with Jews at the top. But on WWI army IQ tests Jews scored below average. IQ tests are skewed for language fluency in the language in which the test is given, and thus immigrants from non-English speaking countries as well as Americans from communities that speak a non-standard form of English are likely to score lower than their actual cognitive ability.

    Tom Tancredo is a glaring example of a child or grandchild of the great wave of immigration who wants to bolt the gate closed after his kin have gotten in.

  2. I admit I used to be guilty of proudly saying things like “My great-grandfather’s family refused to speak Italian to him when he got here, so that he would learn English faster. Why don’t immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries do this?” I don’t spout off like that anymore because it seems to be insensitive, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. In the long-run I agree, it probably doesn’t matter much. The generations who are born here go to school and assimilate in their own ways. But I just feel sorry for people who don’t learn at least some English.

    I arrived in Chile for a six-month stay knowing pretty much no Spanish at all, and it was incredibly humbling. Just going out and trying to pay a bill was a ridiculous experience. I learned as much Spanish as I could as fast as I could to make life in my new home more enjoyable for myself. It wasn’t easy, but I knew it was the best way for me to enjoy the country I was living in. I’ve spoken with people who’ve lived here for years who don’t speak any English at all, and it just makes me shake my head.

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